Three years ago today (August 9), a White Ferguson, Missouri, police officer named Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old he’d stopped for walking in the street on his way home. Authorities let Brown’s body lay outside for some four hours, stunning and then angering his community. The following day saw both a peaceful vigil and the burning of a QuikTrip gas station among other sites. For 10 days and nights, local then state police met mostly peaceful protesters with tanks, rubber bullets, tear gas and other military-grade equipment. At the height of what some call the Ferguson Rebellion, Black activists—some taking action for the first time—demonstrated around the clock, triggering worldwide media coverage, the deployment of the National Guard and the arrival of national organizers under the rubric of Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Ashley Yates, a Florissant, Missouri, writer, artist and activist, was one of the early on-the-ground organizers who repeatedly faced militarized police from the city and state and then the National Guard. During those stressful days, she co-founded Millennial Activists United, a grassroots group that marched nightly, made meals for protesters and treated people tear-gassed by police. In December 2014 Yates was one of a group of young activists who met with then-president Barack Obama at the White House. In 2015 she served as a Black Lives Matter representative at the United Nations in Geneva. Yates has also written for or appeared on media outlets including NPR, Democracy Now, the Huffington Post, MSNBC and Colorlines. In this interview edited and condensed for space and clarity, activist and journalist Lamont Lilly talks with Yates about the day Michael Brown was killed, the Ferguson movement, and the importance of mental health care in a war zone.
Ashley, can you take us back to the murder of Mike Brown on August 9, 2014? What happened that day? What did that look like on the ground?
It was a very particular experience to have been present on August—Day One, as people say. Mike Brown was murdered around noon. I remember I had to work that day and didn’t arrive until about 8:30 p.m. or maybe 9:00. His body was left in the street until around 4:30 or 5:00. A lot of people had gone back inside, but there were still probably 30 to 40 people congregating outside. People were just really sad and distraught, holding themselves together. People hadn’t quite become angry yet.
I got the story about the police dogs when I got there. The police had responded immediately in riot gear, but the community was just coming out to see why there was a dead boy’s body just laying out in the street like that. Just imagine a dead body laying out in the middle of your neighborhood for four or five hours. What human being would walk or drive by that and not be affected? In the early part of the day people just wanted answers, but [police] weren’t talking to the family or giving people any answers. So went to the police station, which was right up the street.
We’re standing outside the police station that night, but they were treating us like we were the threat. I’ll never forget, someone from the crowd said “Yo, do y’all see that?” We looked up and there were snipers and rifles on top of the roof, looking down on us. That was the moment it became clear. The coverup is real. You just killed a boy, and now we’re the targets? Nah, you’re not going to scare us away. We live here!
What happened next?
We decided to tie up their phones lines and we started to hit social media, particularly Twitter. After that they finally sent a few officers out and said they wanted to meet with a representative from the community. We said, “Nah. If we identify the key one or two leaders, they’ll cut the head off.” We sent in like nine people, a group. A lot of this was on the fly, in the heat of the moment. We were just trying to figure out how to demand what we needed, while continuing to protect ourselves, whether it was from snipers or teargas.
How did things evolve as people were doing daily protests and camping out at night?
By the second week, that’s when things got crazy. Reporters came in from everywhere and a journalist was arrested. People were literally flying in. It looked like an active war zone. Prior to then, it was just the community of Ferguson walking around and this military force stalking us. That’s really what it was in the beginning—[Mike Brown’s] community experiencing violence at the hands of the police and saying hell no to it. We had no fear. There was no fear because we knew that everything that was happening to us was wrong. People were looking down the barrels of M-16 assault rifles with someone’s finger on the trigger and saying “Get that shit out of my face.” These were the same [police] who were pulling us over every day. It was war, Lamont. There isn’t much more I can say. There’s actually a film coming out about this called “Whose Streets.” You’ll see exactly what those first few days looked like, firsthand.
Why do think the community of Ferguson responded in the manner it did? Why Ferguson, Missouri, of all places?
One of the key parts of this story, one of the parts that doesn’t get told very often is that [the St. Louis area] is so hyper-segregated. It’s so stratified by class and race, and it’s been that way for so long. People may move around a little, as in a zip code change, but the segregation is the exact same. The conditions don’t change. It makes it really clear to you how poor you are and how oppressed you are, especially when you’re living beside other people who have so much. On one street, people are making on average $80,000 a year. On the next street over, people are barely making ends meet—making less than $20,000 a year, whole families. These borders are block by block.
When Mike Brown was murdered and left in the street for hours, there was one whole side of the city that could relate to that; this spectrum was across class. But you also have this galvanization by race, of Black people who are constantly harassed by the police, no matter what their class status is. Even prior to Mike Brown, me personally, I had been stopped at least 15 times in a four-to-five year period.
Almost every Black person in St. Louis could have been Mike Brown, stopped for the same reasons. It was a concoction that exploded because we were all living that same experience. Every day! You could write a whole book on it. Jamala Rogers actually does have a book on this. It’s a case study that goes all the way back to Dred Scott, to the East St. Louis Race Riots. There’s a lot of history here.
In December 2014, you and several other Black Lives Matter activists had a “Movement Sit-Down” at the White House with President Barack Obama. How was that experience for you?
There are a couple of stories that can be told from that meeting. Initially, it was just an “invitation” to the White House. They weren’t even sure if we were going to see the president. After talking to my comrades, however, we understood that it was opportunity to push the conversation forward.
What I can say is that we went there with a purpose, especially those of us from Ferguson who had been experiencing the police brutality for days and weeks on end. We were very clear about what our objectives were—first and foremost, getting that military occupation off of our streets. Our immediate concern was, “Why does Ferguson look like Fallujah right now?” Our next concern was getting some justice for the murder of Mike Brown.
So we went into the meeting with President Obama and spoke directly with him. He started off by saying “I just want to listen to you all.” You can take that a couple of different ways, but I appreciated that he didn’t just come in and start trying to run things. For the activists and organizers, the main thing we tried to hit on was our demands, which we had shortened from 10 to maybe four or five. One of the key issues that I personally held in the meeting was providing an illustration of what it was like in Ferguson at that time. Attorney General Eric Holder had already been to Ferguson at that point, but President Obama had not been there yet.
We knew this was nothing new. Before Ferguson it was Cincinnati in 2001, Los Angeles in 1992, Watts, Detroit, and so on. We know that this country has been inflamed for decades, for centuries. We just wanted to negate some of the repressive narratives and we were wondering when our Black president was going to come speak to the people.
What was the result of the meeting?
He did listen, then he gave us this whole speech about voting as a way to create change, almost to say that if Mike Brown had voted he wouldn’t be dead, which was really insulting.
He took us around his office and showed us his custom-made carpet with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on it. He gave us this spill about “the journey” and how he too was a community organizer. He never addressed Darren Wilson, though. This was two days before Eric Garner’s non-indictment. Here’s President Obama giving us a spill about being patient as the nation is burning, literally, in some instances.
It was really interesting watching the manipulation. He listened carefully and absorbed our points, and then offered counterpoints to soften the resistance and spirit of rebellion. We couldn’t believe it. This was the highest office in the land, the first Black U.S. president, the hope of so many generations before us. Instead of speaking truth and providing a new precedent, he used his microphone to take the wind out of our sails, and that’s the truth.
The Movement for Black Lives was operating at such a high level in 2015 dating back to Ferguson in August of 2014. Mobilizations were popping up everywhere. It seems like things have slowed down a bit, particularly since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Where is the movement now?
We can certainly see that the level of mobilizations and street resistance is not where it was in 2015. I think the election had something to do with it, but I also think the reasons are varied. Number One is state repression. A lot of the [on-the-ground] workers have not only faced arrests, they also face police surveillance on the streets and on social media. People have been threatened at their jobs and harassed, which is another form of violence.
People have also been traumatized, at least speaking for Ferguson and myself. You’re talking about a city that was literally shut down for months. This was a daily resistance on the ground that spread from St. Louis County to St. Louis City. On the heels of Mike Brown came VonDerrit Meyers. You had two active resistance movements in two different parts of the St. Louis area—a constant stream of activism and mobilization, but with this activism, came police violence and repression.
Another thing is that while people were doing the work, they also had to feed their children and figure out how to take care of themselves. There was no psychological or mental support. People were figuring it out as they went along, doing what we could. I also think people began to just get tired. Ferguson was like a war. We didn’t have to go to Iraq. It came here to our front doors, and there was no place you could go.
We also have to look at the mental health strains on activists, not only in Ferguson but across the nation. We haven’t taken the time to really address the trauma that occurs when you go out and stage a resistance for months on end. If you think about the scale of it, Ferguson was like the center of the world for a minute. That’s a lot to hold. A lot of the grassroots leaders from different communities sacrificed a lot. Many of our strongest organizers needed time to get our lives back together, to make sure we’re healthy.
That’s so true! I went through that same process of needing to unplug for awhile. So where do we go from here, despite these challenges?
Hopefully, we’ll return to the real building blocks of community. I really hope the movement goes back to being more people-based and people-centered—not based on brands and soundbites and who’s on TV the most, but who the people are who show up for the community when we need them. I do think it’s going to be smaller scale though; it almost has to be under this administration.
We have to look at history and places like Detroit and Jackson, Mississippi, or even communities outside of the U.S. We have to build alternatives to the current system. The question is, “How do we build local power under this system and how do we implement that power?” That may come in the form of radical Black faces in local city councils and local government. Some of this work is already happening. We have to be more strategic, and more pro-active instead of reactive. I think we also have to realize where we stand right now. We have to be adaptable, and yes, work within the system because it’s the one that we currently live in right now. I’m not saying make concessions, but we also can’t just be dreamers about the tangible things that we need.
A lot of activists have burned out. Others are somehow able to pace themselves for the long haul. You’re still fighting, but how do you breathe?
I’m definitely learning. Quite honestly, I’m just coming out of a really bad relationship that took a lot out of me. It kind of forced me to take a break. I do realize that I’m human and we do have limitations. We do have an operating capacity, and it’s very important to honor that.
I remember Michel Martin from NPR held an event at one of the only Black churches in Ferguson and she came up and said, “Yo, you can’t pour from an empty cup.” She didn’t even know me, but that meant so much. She was reminding the on-the-ground organizers to take care ourselves. She also advised us to honor our experiences and the enormity of them.
I’m honestly just now taking some time for myself. I finally realized that doing nothing and giving myself some time is doing something! I’m just now stepping back to reflect, to rest and recover. I’m also attending a weekly therapy session. I’m writing now and getting back to my art, getting back to who I am as a person. I’m also remembering that I actually like to do things. I forgot how to have fun, which is a living component of being a revolutionary. If I’m not a full and healthy person, how am I going to give to the movement? What am I going to give to the movement if I’m all fractured and broken?
That sounds like PTSD.
I recently realized that what we lived through was actually a war. Ferguson was just like a tour, and so was Baltimore. If you think about it, people in the U.S. military go over to Iraq for three to six months and then come back. We had to live this at home, and there were no resources to help us recover—no respect, no framework of understanding, none of these tools, physically nor emotionally. We had to hold that and we all did. But I honestly had to let these experiences breathe to avoid internalizing all of that trauma. So, I write and go to therapy.
I would be lying if I said that I haven’t thought about suicide over these last two years, at least once or twice. Many of the frontline organizers I know battle with some form of anxiety now, and even depression. People in the military have support though, personal injury insurance and federal programs to address their PTSD. Those of us in the movement, all we get is demonized.
Talk more about the demonization of the BLM movement by conservatives and some mainstream media.
I think it’s a continuation of what it has always been, especially for Black people. You’re only allowed to ask for things in a certain way, then you’re judged for resisting in a certain way. I think Jesse Williams said it best during his 2016 BET Awards speech: “If you have a critique for our resistance, you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.”
I think we also have to be conscious of the various nuances. Some people will offer a pushback on being anti-police. Others will tell you up front, “No, I cannot support a system dating back to when we were considered property.” Personally, I don’t believe something with such evil roots like the slave patrol can somehow become a sudden force for our safety and good.
We must be careful not to contribute to the demonization of each other just because we have a different politic or perspective on how to get to what we all want, which is liberation. Ultimately, we can’t let those who might potentially demonize us tell us how to fight for our lives, nor determine our tactics. I’ve definitely seen that in the movement. It’s a way to destabilize us.
And that’s what happens when you begin to cater to the people who aren’t a part of your fight—when you cater to White sensibilities. These are the same people who have been comfortable in our oppression. I am aware of these narratives, but we can’t let these narratives shape what we do. What concerns me most is when these narratives affect how we view each other. When we start to view the freedom fighters as the source of harm, that becomes a serious problem.
Ashley, now that you’ve had some time to breathe and reflect, what have you learned?
I’m learning to set boundaries. I realize now that I have to be a model for self-care. I can’t just tell others to “take care” without caring for myself. I cannot be on every conference call or in every meeting. It’s OK to take a break, especially when you’ve worked your ass off for three straight years. I’m just getting back to being healthy now—balance, family, having some fun, remembering who I am. The whole point of revolution is to create the space to experience more joy, more peace, more justice, more life, more Black futures. It’s so important that we keep that in mind.
Durham, North Carolina-based activist, Lamont Lilly is an organizer and journalist in the Movement for Black Lives. In 2016 he was the Workers World Party U.S. vice presidential candidate. He has also served as a U.S. delegate at the International Forum for Justice in Palestine in Beirut, Lebanon.